The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Get Rejected

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In this excerpt from her new book How Not to Write, Lisa Carver explains why it’s good to get rejected. 

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Ask unlikely people to read your drafts. Because you don’t know whose hands your masterpiece will end up in. They may not even be born yet. Assure your rough draft readers you want their true reactions no matter what. You’ll learn a lot. Some people don’t know what a caftan is. Some people never cleaned a refrigerator in their life. These things I learned by having drafts read by diverse groups. So I knew a few words explaining would be welcome. I also learned that some people really don’t like me. : (

I also learned that not being liked not only didn’t kill me, it didn’t do anything. This was an excellent editorial revelation for me: What I want people to understand in order to get them on my side is not that interesting to them. It wasn’t until I realized I could survive not being liked or believed by everybody that I was able to stop trying to look good, or believable, and just said what happened.

How can you object to rejection? If a boss, friend, lover, or even family member tells you they don’t want you anymore, you can’t say, “You have to want me.” Even if you had the means to force someone to stay in a relationship they want out of, would you? Let that person go. They’re doing you a favor. They’re helping you not waste your time struggling and stewing and resenting. Plenty of other people would really want you, if there were more of you available.

Rejection frees you. And facilitates action.

Having endless options freezes people up; a “no” leaves you with only three. You can yield and do a rewrite the way they want it; you can stop, give up, and put your energy into something new instead; or you can go—publish it yourself. Submission is the first step. What you do with the response you get is the second step. That’s all there ever is to getting your writing out there, those two steps. (Same two steps with asking someone out on a date, haha.)

When I get knotted up over what might happen when someone reads something, I try to remember that writing itself has no consequences. It is a reflection of something that already is. What somebody feels or does upon reading it—including rejecting your work, rejecting you personally, or trying to put you in jail—are in response to what is being reflected, not the reflecting. You’re stating what is. You’re accelerating the original situation to complete itself, not creating a situation. It’s not writing’s fault, or the writer’s, if something bad happens in reaction to it, nor is it the writer’s glory if something good happens, either. We’re the messenger. Even when the message is dismal, though, we’re letting someone out there know they’re not the only one, which is no small thing to find out.

It may say something about you, positive or negative, that your piece (or your love) was rejected, or it may say absolutely nothing at all about you. (Same with having your piece accepted.) Rejection, personally or professionally, is only saying this doesn’t fit here. Maybe it used to, or maybe it would if this and this changed, but right now, as is, no. It may be a case of wrong time, wrong place, or it may be that what you wrote is just plain uninteresting. Some things you write are going to be pretty bad. It’s good to get notice that there’s something more you could be doing, writing, thinking, experiencing. Why be hurt by that? Go do something bigger, go try it.

Rejection can also mean, “You have too much life for us, we can’t handle it. We’re small-minded. You’re fast and wide open and can’t be tamed.” Your form may be too unconventional, too new, to get crammed into their stodgy old format. (Or so I tell myself, haha.)

I cleared out an entire theaterful of patrons who’d come for a Six Feet Under director’s book one time. She is my friend and kindly let me open for her. Hundreds of new people might have bought my book but instead I chose to talk about rape victims having orgasms and everyone was horrified and avoided me as I sat there afterwards invisible, mortified, and greasy next to my popular friend for an hour for the booksigning. Our other friend asked, “Why do you constantly sabotage your career?” I said, “I think the real question is: Why has no one else talked about rape and molestation victims often having orgasms? People need to know this is normal and biological and a psychological safety method and painkiller so that they don’t get confused and even more ashamed and think what happened wasn’t rape.” I bet the real answer was simpler. I bet I was intimidated at speaking before so many rich and cultured people. I was a dirty little jackal standing before a field of Importants, and I was scared and wanted to scare them back, and I did. I bet they remember me, though.

I used to be hesitant to publish certain things because then people would find out stuff I’d done or even thought, and could try to take away my freedom or my children. Then it came true. It was hellish and I don’t think my face has ever really recovered from the stress… I mean, there’s a real lack of dewiness to me ever since. Still… I weigh less—my shoulders or my soul or my spirit. I’m kind of not scared of anything. No one can humiliate or control or repress or blackmail me anymore, and I can’t use threats to silence myself anymore, either, because the worst did happen, and nothing happened. Having a judge order me to read aloud something I’d written or an FBI agent read back to me another piece of my writing wasn’t intimidating. It felt like it gave my writing more authenticity, that they deemed it worth their expensive attention.

Much harder on me than conflicts with authority was rejection from friends because of things I wrote. To me, to lose a friend was like losing the top layer of your skin in a chemical peel and then going sunbathing at noon. It felt like I had no protection against the assaults of fate, without all my friends. The thing is, I was thinking or doing or being whatever it was that so disturbed the friend before I wrote it, or before I let it be published. That was a lot to keep track of, what to hide from whom. And working so hard to keep friends who only liked me with stipulations was keeping me from having time for ones who maybe would just plain like me.

If it’s going to be no, from a friend or a lovah or a governmental agency or a publication, please don’t hover. I like a swift, clear no, and that’s what I give, too. I get asked to do stuff for free all the time. I don’t mind you asking at all—you should! I also don’t mind telling you no if it’s no.

How to say no?

With pleasure.

Once you stop being frightened of saying no, that’s when you can say a real yes when it’s yes. When you stop being frightened of getting told no, that’s when you stop being frightened of their yes not being really yours, and you no longer need to worry over either a yes or a no like a dog with a bone about to be snatched. Get good with rejection, and you’ll be able, finally, to be accepted. And cherished. And celebrated. Every once in a great while. And you’ll know it’s yours.

Assignment: Who would you never show your draft to? Make a list. Now show ’em your draft. Now which publications do you think would never take your piece? You know what to do.


How To Not Write is Lisa Carver's ninth or tenth book. She will probably write nine or ten more, too, as the Ouija board says she won't die till she's 84, and the Ouija board never lies. Ms. Carver tries to, though, often. (Lie.) It's a neglected method of telling the truth. Find her and her books at suckdog.net. More from this author →